It’s the 125th anniversary of the humble escalator. Here are eight things you never knew about them

It’s 16 January 1893. A man by the name of Jesse W. Reno has just installed the first ever incline elevator along the Old Iron Pier in Coney Island, and the world will never be the same. 

The incline elevator, which was a headline attraction for the public, travelled barely seven feet at a tiny 25 degree angle. The escalator, as it’s now more commonly known, has since progressed into something much more than Reno’s idea of an amusement park ride. 

Today marks the escalator’s 125th anniversary, and since that day in 1893, escalators have been sending us up and down convenient journeys through shopping centres, retail stores, airports, stadiums, and of course, the London underground, every single day. 

So, as a birthday treat, we present you all the beautifully weird and wonderful facts you wish you already knew about escalators. 


(Credit: Brooklyn Museum)

How does an escalator work? 

Most people don’t give the escalator a second thought as they step onto the miraculous invention, making sure to tut at oblivious people standing on the wrong side. But for those of you who have ever had a transient epiphany whilst riding an escalator, and have wracked your brain trying to figure out how the last step disappears into nowhere, it’s actually rather simple.

The escalator hasn’t changed much since the day Reno showed it off in New York. Simply put, it’s a conveyor belt that uses rotating chains to pull up platforms in a continuous cycle. 

There are two chains on either side of the escalator which pull the stairs in a continuous cycle. When the stairs disappear into the ground, they continue to loop, going back round on itself until it gets back to the top again, exactly like a conveyor belt. There is an electric motor at the top of the escalator which turns the gears, simultaneously turning the handrail at the same speed as the stairs. 

The return gears at the bottom of the escalator make sure the stairs are able to go back round again, completing the second half of the journey. All of this takes place in the truss; the area between the two floors. 

Why is it called an escalator?

Charles Seeberger, the engineer who designed the precursor to the modern escalator we all know and love in the early 1900s came up with the name. It’s a portmanteau of two words: ‘elevator’ and ‘scala’, the Latin word for steps. 

Up until the mid-twentieth century, Otis was the only manufacturer allowed to use the name escalator as they owned the trademark. This meant that other manufacturers were forced to call their escalators names like ‘Motorstair’, ‘Electric Stairway’ and the prosaically titled ‘Moving Stairs’.

Today, the Swiss company Schindler is the world’s largest manufacturer of escalators in the world and the second largest for elevators. 

The first ever modern escalator in England was installed in Harrods, and it physically traumatised customers 

Picture the scene. It’s 1898 and Victorian customers are riding an escalator for the first time in their lives, having never seen one before. They were spooked to say the least, fully expecting to be eaten up by the machine. In fact, it traumatised so many customers that staff at Harrods were forced to revive them using free smelling salts and cognac when they reached the top.

It’s been a long old while since then and Harrods has kept up their escalator love. In 2016 the store installed sixteen nickel bronze-clad escalators in the entrance hall of the department store. Don’t expect any free smelling salts or cognac though.


(Credit: Harrods)

While the Victorians were scared of being eaten up by the escalator, they were probably more likely to fall down it.

Escalators cause 10,000 injuries every year 

According to the National Library of Medicine, there are approximately 10,000 escalator-related injuries in the US every year. Time claims there were 49 deaths related to escalators in China in 2014 alone, though many of this can be attributed to safety regulations not being complied with. 

If you thought escalators were dangerous beasts though, you’d be wrong. According to estimations,1,000 people die using staircases in the UK every year.If anything, the staircases are the ones you should worry about, and give the escalator some more love instead. 


The longest escalators, the shortest escalators and everything in-between

Opened in 1993, Hong Kong’s Central-Mid-Levels escalator is a behemoth of an escalator with a distance of 800m. It snakes through the city of Hong Kong, letting you hop on and off whenever you like. Though, it’s more of a travelator. 

The longest sightseeing escalator in China beats any mountain climb, though. Opening in 2016, the 688m-long sightseeing escalator takes visitors down the mountain at Enshi canyon in Hubei province. With a whopping 2,260 steps, the escalator has a journey time of 18 minutes. 


(The Enshi canyon escalator. Credit: ImagineChina)

The world’s shortest escalator is in More’s Department Store in Kawasaki, Japan, sporting a measly five steps, and a rise of  83.4cm – yes, you read that right.  

The second longest escalator in the UK is in Angel Station, going up 27 metres, and is only beaten out by the escalator in Heathrow Terminal 5. Stratford Station is home to the shortest escalator, which plays host to a modest 4.1 metre-tall escalator. 

Escalators with a twist: Spiral escalators exist

Reno, our main inventor, actually wanted the first spiral escalator to be based somewhere on the Piccadilly Line – on Holloway Road to be exact. His wish came true, and it was eventually built, but no one ever got the chance to ride it. It ran at 30 metres per minute, rising barely ten metres in height. The theory is, it wasn’t safe.escalator_spiral

(Above: A spiral escalator in Yokohama Landmark Plaza, Japan. Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Spiral escalators did eventually come to fruition though, and now don’t just go up in a boring, straight incline. While it’s a little frivolous, you can travel on escalators that spiral.

Since 1985, Mitsubishi Electric has been the only manufacturer to design and build spiral escalators, having made over 120 of them so far.

According to Mitsubishi, the largest spiral escalator is in a shopping mall in Shanghai, going up seven storeys high, forming two spiral staircases of beauty. The thing is, they’re really slower due to the nature of spirals. Horizontal speed decreases as it moves along a slope, keeping speed down.

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